The numbers game – a grouse moor primer for hillwalkers

David Lintern

With the grouse shooting season underway, David Lintern takes a look at the controversies surrounding the intensive management of grouse moors.

About a week ago, on August 12th, the grouse season shooting started. Aside from the odd news piece and an article by campaigner Dr. Mark Avery a year ago, I don’t think it’s had much coverage on Walkhighlands, so I thought it might be timely (well, within about a week or so of being timely) to recap the issue.

I’ll confess I’m late to the table on the subject. I’m not a birder, just a hillgoer. To be honest, I didn’t know until recently that ptarmigan are also a type of grouse. I am interested in systems, though – how people, plants and animals fit together in the world, and whether those interactions are mutually beneficial. So the spur for me to understand more about moors and moorhens was this incongruous sight:

Unlike the breezeblock in this picture, the prime habitat for Red Grouse is heather moorland, and heather provides both food and shelter for the bird. What’s the brickwork doing here though?

Apparently, heather can be quite chewy, so the birds also like to chow down on naturally occurring grit to help them digest the stalky, fibrous plant. However, the bird also suffers from Strongyle worm, a parasite that lives in the gut and causes the population to crash every few years.

What I’ve come to understand is that the key to operating Grouse Moor as a business, is volume. The majority of shooting these days is ‘driven’, which means the punter takes his or her pot shots from a stationary position in a grouse ‘butt’, and a few locals are paid £50 or so a day each to ‘shoo’ the birds towards the line of guns. Estates market themselves on the size of ‘bags’ and driven grouse shooting is by and large for the rich, with each bird worth around £75. A day’s ‘sport’ could well cost several thousand pounds.

There are less intensive, perhaps more sporting ways of ‘hunting’ grouse – with dogs and a gun, or dogs and falcons, but driven shooting is the one that prizes headcount over all else –thousands per season, even tens of thousands for some estates. This is big business. So, the last thing you want as an estate manager is a population crash.

Near Tomintoul in the Cairngorms, a line of beaters flush out our feathered scapegoat.

Back to that worm problem. In the 1980s, the industry started using medicated grit, which the birds ingest and which keeps the parasite at bay. Hurrah – bird numbers rose by about 40%. However, the fat used to bind the drug to the grit was temperature sensitive, which meant that in a mild spring the chemical would dissolve and the birds would suffer more infection and fatalities. Back to square one.

Around 2007, a new stronger drug with a weather resistant fat was introduced.
Flubendazole is persistent stuff, and as a consequence the law dictates it must be taken out of the food chain a month before the season starts, lest it poison anyone eating the bird. It was because of this that some grouse moors introduced trays with 2 compartments, and a sliding door. A month before August 12th, the door containing the Flubendazole laced grit could be closed, and the regular, unlaced grit exposed.

And if you don’t want to spend money on a purpose built tray, then a breezeblock with a brick on top will do.

The delivery mechanism may be low tech, but medicated grit is just the tip of a long, sophisticated spear. There are all sorts of other interventions to keep our intensive moorhen factory ticking over. Managers and gamekeepers practise Muirburn, the burning of tracts or strips of heather, in order to provide optimal conditions for our feathery diva: The older, unburnt heather provides shelter, with the new shoots appearing after the burning providing better eating.

Muirburn has a serious impact on air quality, with many villages adjacent to grouse estates suffering from localised smog and pollution issues damaging to health, especially in inversion friendly weather conditions, where cold air sinks into the glens dragging smoke down with it.

Blanket bogs and peat lands are drained in order to provide yet more heather habitat, thereby robbing them of their full carbon storing and flood prevention potential and well increasing water pollution. 70% of all our drinking water comes from the uplands, and at least 80% of peat land in the UK is reckoned to be in ‘unfavourable condition’. Moorland matters for more reasons than just the views from the weekend’s Munros.

Muirburn in the Angus Glens

All those pampered birds in one place act as a magnet for other wildlife that might very well enjoy dining out at the laird’s expense, save for the traps laid for them. This is the reason it’s rare to see a fox in the wild in Scotland… but crows and stoats are also classed as ‘vermin’ and their eradication sought. And this too, is a numbers game: We’re talking hundreds of animals killed per estate per year, not just ‘a few’, or ‘now and then’. Mountain hares and deer carry ticks, that in turn carry a virus (Louping Ill) which can also infect the nervous system of red grouse, and despite evidence showing no provable link between culling hares and controlling this virus, they are also given short shrift and killed in vast numbers.

Covered rail trap (legal) and Grouse Butt in heavy snow, Lammermuir

This virus is of such concern that gamekeepers may also use a small flock of sheep as a ‘tick mop’ on grouse moor. This means an estate may be able to show agricultural use for new hill tracks, without conventional planning permission… hill tracks which can then be used to transport paying clients to and from grouse butts. It can even mean the same land is eligible for agricultural subsidy.

Did someone say subsidy? There’s no standalone data for Scotland as yet, but an English study by Friends of the Earth found 30 grouse shooting estates in 2014 in receipt of £4million through the Common Agricultural Policy. CAP is worth £3billion PA to England’s farmers. Some of this money comes in through environmental grants under SSSI, SPA and SAC designations, many of which are on grouse moor and in declining condition… due to intensive management practices like draining and muirburn.

With all this in mind, it should be obvious that grouse moor ‘management’ means exactly that – this is an intensely manipulated system, not a natural environment. A grouse moor isn’t quite a wildlife desert – because the same conditions that grouse favour also suit ground nesting waders like Curlew, Golden Plover and Lapwing – but it is about as far away from being wild as a field full of wheat or sheep.

More, hen? The more we weave, the more tangled the web becomes. The push for bigger bags means higher densities of grouse, and as a consequence widespread outbreaks of a disease commonly known as Bulgy Eye, something previously associated only with captive birds. Shooting advocates claim that it’s good for the environment and good for the economy, yet nowhere else practices this type of intensive grouse farming. Despite Red grouse being common in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, their biodiversity seems to ‘manage’, even flourish, without driven shooting. Hunting is permitted, too… but is less the province of the very wealthy. Whose economy?

It should be no surprise that those who control the moorland environment so successfully for personal gain would also seek to control the wider public perception of their activities. With PR help from organisations like the Countryside Alliance, shooting estates have sought to put a positive spin on the moorland cash crop. Red grouse is promoted as a sustainable and environmental highland business through the ‘Gift of Grouse’ campaign, and a healthy, low fat food through ‘Game to Eat’.

This, despite the FSA (food standards authority) advising caution for regular consumers of the meat. Most grouse is still killed with lead shot, a practice that many estates are not keen to give up. A 2010 study found residual lead content in around half of all the game birds tested was higher than would be legal in domesticated meat sold on the high street. Red grouse could not be sold legally for food if it were not classified as game meat.

Carefully worded signage in the south east Cairngorms

Moorland predator control sometimes extends to the illegal killing of birds of prey – in Scotland, particularly hen harriers and eagles, both protected species. It’s these iconic birds of prey that have become an emblem for those calling for an end driven grouse shooting, and with good reason.

Even shooting associations admit that trapping and poisoning goes on, but claim it’s a ‘few bad apples’. Sadly, it’s more cull than kill. Scottish Hen Harrier surveys have tracked a 31% decline in populations since 2004, and a similar third of tracked Golden Eagles ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances over the last 12 years. Experts describe the Harrier population as ‘in free-fall’.

Ian Thompson, head of investigations at the RSPB Scotland (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has evidence of 800 raptors killed illegally between 1994-2014, with barely any convictions. It’s his belief that criminality in the grouse moor industry is ‘endemic’. “We have some of the best laws in the world…” he said in a recent presentation, “…but the laws aren’t working.” The RSPB are closing in on wildlife crime and have recently produced a map which shows satellite tracked harriers, eagles and kites disappearing in hotspots around the Monadhliaths, the Angus Glens, as well as upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and Lanarkshire.

It’s worth covering (briefly – this is supposed to be a primer!) the Langholm Joint Raptor Study, which took place on Duke of Buccleugh’s estate in southern Scotland during the 1990s, because it proved once and for all what effect ‘normal’ (read unpersecuted) population levels of raptors might have on grouse shooting as a business. With Hen Harriers and Peregrines given the actual protection their legal status entitles them to, their numbers rose… but they didn’t impact on the spring breeding population of grouse. Instead, they reduced the ‘shootable surplus’, i.e young birds, by about 50%. As a result, Langholm ceased operating as a driven shooting estate.

Langholm arguably led to an entrenchment on both sides of the debate. It showed that while low numbers of raptors could co-exist alongside driven shooting, if left unchecked they could challenge the high grouse densities desired for big bags.

Unidentified raptor corpse in the Monadhliath

A subsequent study at Otterburn in Northumberland showed that legal predator control could benefit population numbers of neighbouring wading birds… but contrary to what you might think, more raptors in the skies on grouse moors does not necessarily lead to fewer ground nesting birds. How do we know? The Langholm study proved it. With more birds of prey on the site, numbers of Curlew and Lapwing actually increased. Only Golden Plover declined, and then only slightly. However, as campaigner Mark Avery has pointed out, by this point the ‘battle lines were drawn’.

The RSPB and the SWT (Scottish Wildlife Trust) are now calling for better regulation in the form of licensing, while TV naturalist Chris Packham joins Mark Avery (along with a 2016 public petition of 123,000) in support for a total ban on driven grouse shooting. At the very least, the ground is shifting towards greater control: In May 2017, Roseanna Cunningham (Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform) announced an independent enquiry into wildlife crimes, the costs and benefits of grouse shooting, and the possible licensing of grouse moor estates in Scotland. In contrast, south of the border new environment minister Michael Gove has signalled continued Conservative support for the game industry, claiming they “have, by definition, an interest in sustainability”.

I don’t agree with Gove. Driven grouse shooting is a numbers game, and one whose number is up. There’s a culture of killing here that looks very much like a cult, and it’s not remotely sustainable in environmental terms. But those who support it (including politicians across the political spectrum) won’t give it up without a real fight. That’s understandable, there’s a lot to lose – both livelihoods and a way of life. What that means is that anyone serious about ending driven shooting completely also needs to consider how to modernise and sustain rural economies, in a future without the red grouse as a cash crop for a privileged few.

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